Alon Hadar, Sep 18, 2013
This article was translated with permission from Hebrew to English. The original appeared in the September 18, 2013 issue of Israel's Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper.
Roger Waters provides his thoughts on this interview and the on-the-record interview transcript: A note from Roger
"Critic in Chief"
He declared a boycott on us, raised a pig doll that includes a Star of David on it and asked his singer friends not to come to Israel - Now Roger Waters, founder of Pink Floyd, explains for the first time what he has against the government of Israel and why he automatically sides with the Palestinians, but doesn't rush to intervene in the massacre in Syria - a "Yediot Ahronot" reporter accompanied one of the greatest musicians in history on his travels, and looked into why he insists on building a wall around us
Alon Hadar, Europe
The 40,000 spectators in the Dusseldorf Arena waited for a few long minutes until suddenly bursting into cheers. Roger Waters, the legendary founder of Pink Floyd, strummed the first notes of the song, "Mother," making even the most self-restrained Germans outdo themselves with excitement. "Happy Birthday!", suddenly there was an unclear sound growing louder and louder, and then the entire stadium got up on its feet, thrusting the plastic beer cups into the air, honoring the singer who, at 70, is in the midst of the most successful tour of his long career.
The Englishman thanked his fans embarrassedly and wanted to get on with the show, which was dedicated to playing the rock classic "The Wall," but the audience had other plans. "Mother" pushed their emotional button. The text comprises autobiographic elements that describe a profound conversation between the son and his mother, who lost her husband, Waters' father, in WWII. The experience of early and formative orphanhood is the key to his complex and controversial worldview.
Later on, Waters will tell me that in the beginning, the band was concerned that this was booing, until someone understood and called out happily, "Oh, they are singing happy birthday." At the end of the spectacular show, the band joined the celebration too, despite the fact that on the flight from Berlin Roger had explicitly requested radio silence so that the September 6th celebrations stay within a limited circle. For Waters, who was standing beside a pile of fallen bricks, the only thing left was to enjoy the moment. "In the end, I asked my band to join in with them, to lead them, so we'd all sing it together one time," he reveals with a mischievous smile.
Dusseldorf is one of the last stops on the singer's European tour: a journey comprising 30 stadiums that began in the middle of July in the Netherlands and which will end this coming Saturday in Stade de France in Paris. In the last months he visited Scandinavia, Rome, Istanbul, Athens, London, and many more. Only one state is absent from the list - Waters refuses to perform in Israel. He was here once already, in 2006, when he demanded to move the venue at the last minute from Hayarkon Park to a field of chick peas way out off the highway connecting Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. Forty-five thousand excited Israelis came to see him there, thousands more didn't manage to get a ticket but came anyway, sitting in nearby fields to listen to the sounds. If it's up to Waters, and if nothing changes on the political map, it appears that for most of those who attended, that really was a concert that comes once in a lifetime. "I would love to come back and play music in Israel if the political situation changes," he begins, and as opposed to his artist friends, he doesn't hesitate even for a moment to talk about politics. Quite the opposite - just let him and he'll talk politics for hours and hours. "The performance in Israel was great, I enjoyed it and the crowds were amazing. At the end of my performance, I said: "You are the generation that needs to lead toward peace with your neighbors" and suddenly, at that moment, the entire crowd became quiet."
Do you regret that performance?
"Absolutely not, it was an eye-opening experience for me, that concert in Neve-Shalom was really wonderful. But I played music in an apartheid state. If this state stopped being an apartheid state, I will return to play for you. I can't wait for the moment that that happens."
After leading Pink Floyd for almost 20 years, even today Waters is considered to be one of the most influential and central names in music. Along with his friends Syd Barrett, David Gilmour, Richard Wright and Nick Mason, he made masterful albums that sold tens of millions of copies and their biggest hits were played hundreds of millions of times by radio stations. But in the last few years, he is getting international attention not only because of his musical renaissance, but mainly because of his expansive political activity and his declaration of war against the government of Israel. The singer joined BDS, a movement supporting a cultural and economic boycott of Israel , similar to the boycott of the apartheid regime in South Africa, in which a large part of the world's artists refused to perform there until the separation laws were repealed in 1994 and the country held democratic elections.
Waters began working intensively: he rushed to call every artist with plans to come to Israel to try to convince him not to come here. Artists like Alicia Keys, Elton John and Rihanna were unresponsive, but Waters also had successes: Stevie Wonder canceled his participation in an Israel Defense Force benefit in Los Angeles. Elvis Costello, the Pixies, Vanessa Paradis and Pearl Jam canceled visits to Israel for similar reasons, and there are many more who are not willing to even hear about traveling to the Holy Land because of him. While for most people, the word "culture" connects with words like "bridge" and "dialogue," he chooses the path of boycott and ostracism. Now, for the first time, he wishes to address his fans in Israel, the same fans who crowned Pink Floyd their favorite band, to explain his actions. There is no doubt that what he has to say is not easy for the Israeli ear, his worldview is very lenient on the Palestinian side while at the same time taking a hard line, at times unjustly according to many, with the Israeli side. However, if millions of people around the world listen to him and his opinions, it is appropriate that we listen as well, even if we probably won't agree with them.
Israel is one of the few states in the Middle East where an artist like yourself can come and express his opinions without fearing for his life. Don't be a big hero abroad, come here and try to convince us that you're right.
"I tried to convince, it was not effective. I never saw a visit of a popular musician having an impact on Israeli policy, other than the fact that those singers legitimize that policy."
The international artists that ignored your calls argued that you shouldn't mix politics and music.
"I know these arguments: "I'm only a humble musician," "I'm only doing my show." That was the position of Alicia Keys."
You tried to convince her with no success, she arrived here and performed here.
"She's a grown woman and can do whatever she wants."
On the official level, Israel tried to ignore the cultural boycott at first, but when the dimensions of the phenomenon continued to grow, it could not remain silent. Bar Refaeli tweeted "Roger Waters, you should take my photo off the video art in your shows. If it's boycott you want, go all the way." Foreign Ministry officials, concerned about the consequences of his activity on Israel's legitimacy in the world, sent a representative to a show in Athens last July to check if it contained anti-Semitic elements. The representative, by the way, found no basis for this and even mentioned that Waters protested against the civil rights situation in Iran (the music, by the way, was not to his liking). Rabbi Abraham Cooper of the Wiesenthal Center even claimed that Waters is an anti-Semite.
Even major figures from the peace camp oppose the hard line taken by Waters and his friends in the boycott movement. According to them, culture must not be harmed as it is the real bridge for dialogue among nations. Only the non-Zionist left embraces the singer, and radical artists like Juliano Mer-Khamis (before he was murdered) and Udi Aloni cooperated with him in establishing and supporting cultural institutions in Jenin such as the Freedom Theater and Cinema Jenin. Waters did not respond to these claims thus far, and only answered Refaeli: "No problem," quickly removing her photo from his performance.
Our first meeting took place in the "De Grande" hotel located in the heart of Amsterdam. The band landed in the Netherlands an hour ago, coming here from Dusseldorf. For Waters, one hour is enough to recover from the voyage, and his bodyguard leads me to his room. A heavy wooden door opens onto a tidy suite where the singer is already waiting for me. His laptop computer is open on the table, and beside it lies a piece of paper where he jotted down a few points with a blue pen that it is important for him to make clear to Israelis. The fact that he performed in front of tens of thousands of people a few hours ago was not apparent on his face. Fresh, his graying, long hair inspires envy; he is dressed in a black t-shirt, drinking espresso. More than anything else, he is hungry to talk about politics.
Besides refuting accusations of anti-Semitism, he wants to make you Israelis think differently. This is what made him agree to have us accompany him on his European tour. He has no new show or album to promote, only a genuine will to try and explain himself, to send a message to his fans in Israel. "I'm worried for them, because they're in a very difficult situation because of the government's policy," he begins. "The problem is the occupation and the denial of the rights of the Palestinian people. I want my fans to put pressure on the government. The power is in their hands."
And meanwhile, your fans feel quite hurt by you.
"I want the fans to understand that I'm not just talking in order to criticize. I am criticizing the government's policy. I don't want to criticize Israeli citizens."
And still, you boycott them.
"I've been in your country, I've traveled throughout the West Bank, I visited Jenin. I saw the checkpoints, the settlements, the occupation forces. I decided that I wanted to protest. What do they expect me to do in order to protest? To chain myself to the railings at Buckingham palace? That doesn't seem particularly effective."
But a cultural boycott is an exceptional and extreme step.
"When white activists started to organize protests outside South Africa to awaken world public opinion, they said: 'You have to take apart the system because it is wrong.' The movement progressed slowly over the years and developed the idea of a cultural boycott. The only reason for the boycott is that it is effective."
You're talking about an apartheid regime in South Africa. Here the situation is totally different.
"In the occupied territories, Jews are governed by civil laws and there are totally different laws for the Palestinians and the Arabs, who are under military laws. That is exactly like the old Pass Laws that were in South Africa. That's apartheid! Clear and simple. No question."
At this point, Waters refers us to the dictionary, to check the exact definition of apartheid, to prove that he is right. And indeed: "Population separation on the basis of race, a regime where the ruling race has privileges that members of other races do not have." This doesn't help, Waters continues: "When one race or ethnic group controls another race or ethnic group by means of its power, this is the crime of apartheid and that's the status quo, all day, every day, in the occupied territories," he says and raises his voice. "That's how it is in Israel itself as well, there are different laws depending on whether you are Jewish or Arab."
You mean the "Law of Return"? That is the basis of the idea of Israel as a Jewish state.
"That's one of them. You only need five or six discriminatory laws and you already have an apartheid state. So long as you don't have equal rights for all, you are practicing apartheid, so I can repeat this again and again, and Benjamin Netanyahu can deny it a thousand times until the end of his days. It's not something that is controversial. I apologize if some of my fans in Israel are sensitive to this, but it's a fact.
You forget that Netanyahu already declared his support for the idea of two states and called on the Palestinians to enter into negotiations without preconditions.
"There are some politicians who say something about the two-state solution and that they want peace, but their policies don't show any sign that that's true. They continue building settlements, they continue the occupation."
Israel has never annexed the territories. At every opportunity, it declares that this situation is temporary. There is not one Israeli citizen who is not interested in peace.
"If you look at the map and see where the settlements are and where the wall passes, then you see that it's not something temporary. There is a deliberate attempt here to annex the entire territory. By the way, they already annexed East Jersualem and the Golan Heights officially, not just de facto."
Let's not forget that thousands of Israeli citizens were murdered in terrorist attacks in Israel and abroad. Some of the most severe terrorist attacks were launched from the city you visited, Jenin.
"I am speaking to you from the perspective of the BDS movement, which is a group that does not support violence. I don't support violence from any side. I don't think that this problem can ever be solved using violent means. When I was in Jenin, I went to a refugee camp and spoke with the elders. They told me about the events of 2002 (Operation Defensive Shield) what happened and how it affected their children. It's horrifying."
You are painting a picture of black and white, of the good guys and the bad guys. And what about the Palestinians? Aren't they partly to blame for the situation?
"I think that putting part of the blame on Palestinians is a bit like putting part of the blame of rape on the woman being raped. The victim is never guilty. In this case, Palestinians were expelled from their land in `48 by armed force and were not allowed to return to their homes. They are the victims. It is unavoidable that some of them will try to resist in ways that I do not agree with."
You're supposed to be a peace loving man, and here you are doing a boycott. Is that really the right way?
"Yes, just like in South Africa. In the end, it was very effective and the only state that continued to support the whites in South Africa was Israel. Even though South Africa is still not a perfect place in any sense of the word, there is no discrimination there anymore. I want you to get to that situation in Israel."
If you were to meet Benjamin Netanyahu, what message would you have for him?
"I'm trying to think of how to say what I want and still be nice. OK, I guess I'll say 'it's starting to look more and more unlikely that you will be the one that will solve this problem, so if you really care, you need to dedicate as much of your time as possible trying to find the Israeli leader that can do it."
Are you able to help him?
"Being a politician is not a healthy line of work, it tends to mess you up a bit."
A few days before the show in Dusseldorf, the Jewish community issued a call to boycott Waters, claiming that his show has become an "anti-Semitic and Nazi" display. Where did these extraordinary charges come from? A few months ago, an Israeli living in Belgium documented the floating pig doll that has been accompanying Pink Floyd's show for years and uploaded a video to YouTube entitled: "Roger Waters Puts a Star of David on a Pig." Although several additional symbols and anti-capitalist slogans were also scribbled on the pig's back, this didn't make Waters' punishment any less severe; he was declared an anti-Semite for all intents and purposes by Jewish organizations. "The song 'Comfortably Numb' describes the emotional breakdown of the main character in the album, who becomes a fascist and a demagogue," explains Waters. "The inflatable pig is part of his demagogic fantasy. It has a bunch of symbols on it, not just the cross and Star of David, but also the hammer and sickle, all the symbols that it has on it are symbols of oppression. That's what they are."
And here you are, defining the Star of David as a symbol of oppression, it hurts the feelings of the Jewish people.
"I absolutely defend my right to express myself in my artwork in the way that I find the most appropriate and fitting. The Star of David is the symbol of the state of Israel. If you start to throw around the term "anti-Semite" at everyone who criticizes Israel - and that's what they're actually doing - that weakens your next attack on people who really are anti-Semites, ones that really don't like Jews or Judaism or anything connected with it. I'm not an anti-Semite."
So why do they accuse you of anti-Semitism, for no reason?
"Two years ago, I explained to the Anti-Defamation League the use of symbols like the Star of David on the pig and they said: 'We don't like it, but we don't believe that it's anti-Semitic.' Suddenly, after I wrote the open letter to my colleagues in rock 'n' roll and offered that they join the cultural boycott of Israel, they changed their minds and declared me an anti-Semite. Maybe they felt my letter went a step too far."
And here Waters suddenly grows nostalgic, missing his parents - his mother Mary and his father Eric Waters, who he never got to see. "When they accused me of being an anti-Semite, I told them that I still remember my mother's friends after the war. I remember Miriam and Claudette, I remember the numbers on their arms. Two of the lucky ones who survived were an inseparable part of my life - so don't call me an anti-Semite."
Did you grow up in a political household?
"My mother was a declared communist. Our house was filled with documentation of the cruelest crimes committed in the name of Nazi ideology and the Third Reich. I was never in the gas chambers, obviously, but I was exposed as a young child to its results, and I have never forgotten the Holocaust. My mother (who died a few years ago at the age of 96) dedicated the rest of her life to political activism that she believed would provide great benefit to a great number of people."
Your father was killed when you were only five months old, in that same war.
"My father died fighting the Nazis while in the British army in south Italy. Before the war, he was very involved in Palestine, he was a teacher at Saint George's School in Jerusalem and dearly loved the country and its people. So I feel a kind of connection to this country through him. They ask me, "why do you do it?" I have no choice but to do what I'm doing. My political life and the feeling that I have to take part and be active are totally connected to the example I got from both my parents. My parents could have been two complete idiots, and then I guess I wouldn't be what I am today. I feel very lucky that my parents were good, decent, thoughtful people."
Sixty years after his father left Palestine, Waters performed in Israel for the first time. He insisted that the show take place in the chick-pea fields of Neve Shalom, a joint Jewish-Arab town near Latrun. Moments before he left Israel, he rushed over to the separation wall to spray graffiti on it which read "We Don't Need No Thought Control" and "Tear Down the Wall." Then he got on the airplane before the police could summon him for an investigation following a complaint filed by right-wing activists.
In 2009, Waters returned to a surprise visit in Israel and the Palestinian Authority to promote the re-establishment of "Cinema Jenin," the movie theater destroyed during the First Intifada. Waters even donated the audio system and was filmed as part of a documentary about the project. "The visit was just horrifying," he says heatedly. "It's hard to imagine it, but there is a highway there and only cars with yellow license plates drive on it, and all the roads on the sides are sealed so that none of the locals can use them. When I saw the wall, I was terribly shocked, that was one of the most difficult sights I had ever seen in my life."
That is not a wall, that is a separation fence that was built after a series of suicide bombings that originated in Palestinian Authority areas. You insist on continuing to see it as a symbol of ethnic separation.
"You listen to the official position of every Israeli government for generations, that you need the barrier for defense, and then you look at the map, and you understand that it is there for land theft and annexation in every possible sense. So why do you lie? Why pretend that it has any connection whatsoever to security matters? You need to be on the Green Line, on the 1967 borders, as you intended. But you're not, it's another piece of untruth, they are lying and I don't understand how they expect to advance toward peace this way."
Come on, is it really possible to compare the separation wall with the Berlin wall?
"Your wall is a hundred times more horrifying, and yours still exists - theirs was destroyed a long time ago."
Waters makes sure to read newspapers and keep updated about everything that happens here. "Did you see the film "The Gatekeepers" he asks and surprises me with his impressive familiarity with Dror Moreh's unsettling film. "All six GSS chiefs said 'we failed!' Maybe we won the old battles, but that was tactical and not strategic. All six men are worried about the country that they love. The film is very provocative, the director did a great job. I want to know what my fans' response to the movie was. Did they say, 'wow, we have to change our policy' or did they go out for a beer?"
Waters doesn't make it easy for us Israelis. He puts all the blame on us, unwilling to acknowledge the responsibility of the other side. But when he is forced to deal with what's happening in the rest of the world, he suddenly becomes much more forgiving and succeeds in internalizing the complexities of both sides of a conflict. Large massacres in Syria? "There are conflicts in the world where one side is absolutely just, like what was in South Africa, or the southern United States or like in your country," he tries to explain. "In Syria, that's not the situation."
"Israel is unique in that it has a long history of human rights violations and actions that are contrary to international law, without anyone doing anything about it," he tries to explain why we are always to blame. "It is protected in the United Nations, and in the UN Security Council by the US veto. Who goes and speaks in the name of the Palestinians? No one. And who attacks Iran and Syria and puts them under international sanctions? Almost everyone."
A few days ago, horrifying pictures from the Assad regime's chemical weapons attack in Syria were published. You have to agree that an American response is called for, maybe even an aerial attack.
"It's problematic when they say, without having any proof, that they have no doubt that Assad used chemical weapons on innocent citizens and killed 1,500 people."
You're telling me that you believe him?
"Look, I am no fan of Assad and certainly don't believe his every word. But after the lies of the Bush administration, I am happy that the citizens of the United States are now saying: 'wait a minute, we heard all this talk before the invasion of Iraq.' They are not becoming saints, but rather they are becoming selfish. That selfishness is good insofar as it stops Obama, who seems to be a bit cuckoo when he wants to launch missiles at a country that is already torn to ribbons and destroyed by a blood-soaked civil war."
Do you want the world to continue to do nothing in the face of these horrific pictures?
"Who knows what is better for the citizens of Syria, the frying pan or the fire? Putin showed a video of one of the rebels tearing out the heart of a dead Syrian soldier and eating it on the street. So you're sure you want to support the rebel side? What is happening there is beyond catastrophe. The existence of horrors is intended to keep the powerful powerful and the rich rich and the extremist extremist."
All you do is criticize. How should the West act in the chaos of the Middle East?
"The first step is to leave them alone. Don't decide that you know what's best, that you can be the cop of the region. We need to stop sending them arms. You want to fight? Go pick up a rock. Let's not make it into an industry that starts wars and makes trillions of dollars. One day, you're playing in the backyard of your garden and a minute later you have no legs. Why?"
It's a bit hard to believe, but at 70 years of age, Waters acts like he released Pink Floyd's "The Wall" only yesterday. Since September 2010, he did more than 220 shows, most of them in large stadiums. According to estimates, the numbers are approaching ten million tickets sold in North America and Europe. In the ticket lines at the Arena in Amsterdam, you can find glazed-eyed teenagers sporting a psychedelic look, guys who hadn't had a haircut since the 70's and 60 year olds for whom Waters was strumming on the chords of memory.
An hour before the show, the behind-the-scenes guest room fills up. The wild days of psychedelic drugs were replaced by a healthy fruit shake. Behind the partition, we hear sounds of singing. A group of children is practicing movement routines that accompany the lines "We Don't Need No Education." In every city, Waters will explain later, they recruit local kids who practice together a few hours before the show with one of the staff.
Fifteen minutes before the opening, I move to get a glimpse of the dark side of the stage, which looks like a futuristic construction site. Dozens of workers are positioned beside computers and hydraulic cranes. The white cubes of the wall are made of thick cardboard, and beside them is the giant pig doll that for a moment actually reminds me of a giant hippopotamus.
Powerful pyrotechnics create plumes of smoke. Waters enters center stage and shoots a dummy gun at the audience. Unforgettable animation clips from the cult movie "The Wall" are screened on the wall that is built across the entire inner stadium throughout the show, brick by brick.
But then, in the midst of all this, Waters strikes with a subversive act - at least in the terms of a mainstream artist who just wants to fill stadiums - and lays out his political agenda. The first photo begins with the most personal and painful place: a portrait of his father Eric Fletcher Waters. After that, dozens of images will be projected showing people who lost their lives.
Are the messages of "The Wall" still relevant? I try to find out.
"The album totally changed since I wrote it back in 1979," he said. "I have a bigger perspective about myself and life. I was not involved in politics back then, I dealt with my own problems, life, women and all those issues. When we went on tour in 2010, my goal was to make it more political and philosophical, to accentuate the anti-war message and to make it more direct."
I ask Waters about whether he had any moments of regret when looking back at the wondrous and crazy career of Pink Floyd, the band that the prominent music magazine "Q" crowned as greatest in history after summing up album sales, singles and shows. "The Wall" sold 23 million copies worldwide and similar numbers were recorded for "The Dark Side of the Moon." "The Wall" is also ranked third in the United States among the best-selling albums of all time. "I was lucky, we all were," he says. "Somehow, we succeeded in being at the right place at the right time. We were successful enough not to need a real job, we could continue with what we loved. So to regret something from that time would be stupid of me."
In the last few years, a few band members passed away. Barrett in 2006, Wright in 2008. Does the tragic story of Barrett still bother you, perhaps the biggest missed opportunity that the rock world has ever known?
"I think about him from time to time, but so many years have passed since then," he says and becomes silent. "Syd and I were friends, but he was two years younger than me and when you're 16, those two years are a huge difference. When we started thinking about building a band, we became pretty close friends. Then he started going insane, we lost contact and it was just sad after that. From 1968 until he died, I never saw him again, except a few times when he came to the studio. There was no way to make contact with him. He never totally healed from his schizophrenia, or whatever he had. I still hear his songs playing in my head."
Let me be original. Is there a chance that Pink Floyd will ever reunite?
"Well, as you said before, two of the band members are dead so it's a bit hard...but no, we won't reunite. I'm very happy that we did "Live 8" in 2005 when Rick was still alive. That is a special memory for me."
The hours pass, the personal mixes with the political. In moments of remembrance, he would lower his voice, and in political argument he would raise it. Then, like a true British gentleman, he would apologize. A moment before we part ways, he asks me how his fans in Israel would take what he said, and whether they'll be mad at him. Again and again he emphasizes how much he misses them. He elegantly ignores the fact that he could just get on a plane and come here, and that from the looks of it, he could fill Hayarkon Park without breaking a sweat.
You celebrated your 70th birthday. Do you have thoughts about your age? Until when will you continue to perform?
"I don't think about my age when it comes to anything that has to do with my performance on stage or my work. I think about it in my own personal context - how much longer I have to live. You can't reach the age of 70 without fearing for your condition and without feeling that you're creaking."
You're talking about the body?
"You know that your body is going to give up in the end, but that's something we all think about, it's a part of life."
Maybe your contemporary political work comes from wanting to leave behind more than just your masterpiece albums?
"Not really. It happens naturally. Sometimes people ask that I be involved in something and I say, "Oh no, how am I going to do that?" But then I just do it. The first thing that we're about to do when this round is over is a project with wounded war veterans in New York. It's very moving to work with these people. Learning a few songs together and then doing a joint show."
You sound busy, isn't it time for retirement?
"I have a lot of work to do, and I'm already looking forward to it and happy about it. I want to record a new album, that's the main thing. Apart from that, every once in a while I write pieces of what could at some point be a memoir. Late at night I suddenly sit and start to scribble. I love to write, I've always loved to write."
And when the memories come up, what is it like to meet the young Roger?
"It's like it's all happening again in my imagination, you understand the situation and see all the details. It's an amazing thing, the brain keeps holding onto all that information. And you ask yourself why you're holding onto that frame in particular and not another one. That frame and the feelings connected with that age, suddenly you're 13 again."
And you suddenly remember all the things you went through in your life?
"Maybe that's why they say that your whole life suddenly passes in a flashback before your eyes. The doctors say that when you die there is a huge amount of brain activity, suddenly you remember all the things you did, one moment before you're gone."
Alon Hadar, Europe
Translated by Itamar Haritan
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